November 13, 2012

"We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble."

"He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed."

Said Valerie Eliot, the second wife of T.S. Eliot. "He was made for marriage, he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too." She died last week at the age of 86. He died in 1965 at the age of 76.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Eliot was wounded by criticism that he had been cold and self-absorbed, that he had been an anti-Semite, that his treatment of his first wife had been ruthlessly self-serving. She rarely responded publicly, though the release in 1994 of a movie about Eliot’s first marriage, “Tom & Viv,” starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, prompted her to [defend] her husband on every front, even producing copies of letters to refute the film’s unflattering assertions, including a scene in which Vivienne pours melted chocolate into the Faber & Faber mailbox after being unable to get into the office.

The doors at Faber were always open, Mrs. Eliot said, so the chocolate story was a fabrication.

“What Tom did like was vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce,” she added. “He was eating it in a restaurant once and a man opposite said, ‘I can’t understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.’ Tom, with hardly a pause, said, ‘Ah, but you’re not a poet,’ and went on eating.”
It was all about ice cream and chocolate and cheese and Drambuie and Scrabble and cards and... poetry!


Carol said...

Didn't Eliot's first wife mess around with Bertrand Russell a couple weeks after the wedding? He was such a prick.

edutcher said...

Sounds like The Blonde and me, although she had to give up the Drambuie when she had her gall bladder out.

MadisonMan said...

and a man opposite said, ‘I can’t understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.’ Tom, with hardly a pause, said, ‘Ah, but you’re not a poet,’ and went on eating.

What would compel someone to comment on what someone else is eating in a restaurant? Jeeze. I'm glad Eliot smacked him down.

Scott said...

For an "anti-semite," it's unusual that Eliot had a warm friendship with the very Jewish comedian Groucho Marx.

Michael K said...

The topic is timely as I'm thinking about the last time "cocooning" was popular. Was it the Carter Administration ? We are now seeing what Jimmy Carter's second term was like. Time for cocooning and ice cream and chocolate sauce.

McTriumph said...

Valerie Eliot, class act, she loved her husband and was loyal to the end.

mccullough said...

Let be be finale of seem
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

T.S. Eliot couldn't scrape the bottom of Wallace Stevens bowl.

Anonymous said...

One of the more interesting aspects of blogs and blogging is the division of labor issue. Ann is like a business manager who sets the day's work schedule by referring to items that interest her and then adding brief comments. The actual debate, of course, occurs on the comments page, where the blue-collar workers (the commenters) wrestle with the issue on which she has focused. Ann will also join the debate from time to time. Ann sets agendas, very loosely, of course, the way that Time and Newsweek used to in the days when print journalism was important.

A good blog with a vigorous comments page is a wonderful place to follow arguments. To see how much has changed, compare what happens here to the letters-to-the-editor section of newspapers.

ricpic said...

With a young juicy wife waiting at home Eliot made his bones writing poetry full of despair. What was he going to do, write about domestic bliss? That would've been a one way ticket to "irrelevance" and obscurity. Just like Barnum, Eliot, genius of the zeitgeist that he was, gave the high minded suckers what they hungered to hear, that the world is unrelievedly grim.

mccullough said...

Eliot's best work was behind him when he married his second wife. It's nice to see he recovered from the nervous, anxious wreck he was back when his work was really good. His second wife wasn't even born when he wrote The Wasteland and was still young by the time he finished the Four Quartets.

It's sort of like an aging rock star who finds some peace and happiness in old age.

Ralph L said...

I can't hear about a Grand Old Man of English Letters and his widow without thinking of Maugham's Cakes and Ale, very funny if you haven't read it, especially the description of the Horace Walpole character. The First Wife is a major factor in that story, too.

Toad Trend said...

'Ah, but you’re not a poet'


Pragmatist said...

Listening to him read the Wasteland and other poems on my Ipod had made many a bad day better. RIP Valerie

Æthelflæd said...

The best things he ever did were Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Murder in the Cathedral.

William said...

I read somewhere that Cats had enriched the estate of T.S. Eliot by a considerable sum. Much more lucrative than The Wasteland. Ditto with Shaw and My Fair Lady. If only Wallace Stevens' works could be made into a boffo Bway musical, his hears could have the prosperity that they deserve.

Dan in Philly said...

I hazard to say since she was 39 when he died at age 76 she might not have been a good judge of how he treated others with whom he might not have been as comfortable in his superiority. Also it certainly was in her best interest to preserve a good image of him.

Æthelflæd said...

You know, I never actually saw the Cats musical. I'm not much of a musical fan. The poems themselves are great fun for children to memorize. I had a group of small boys memorize "The Pekes and the Pollicles" and they had a blast. It has the added benefit of being rather un-PC.

Anonymous said...

When I started reading poetry in high school, Eliot was the Pope and Mt. Everest combined. Yet today he is little more than a footnote to literary modernism. This boggles me.

In 1989 for the New Yorker Cynthia Ozick wrote "T.S. Eliot at 101", a reexamination of Eliot as a writer and a phenom. I liked her essay so much, I ocr'ed it and saved it. Here are a few paragraphs (with my bolding) from the first page.

But by the close of the eighties only "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" appears to have survived the indifference of the schools—-as two or three pages in the anthologies, a fleeting assignment for high- school seniors and college freshmen. "Prufrock," and "Prufrock" alone, is what the latest generations know (barely know): not "The Hollow Men," not "La Figlia the Piange," not "Ash Wednesday"—-not even "The Waste Land." Never "Four Quartets." And the mammoth prophetic presence of T. S. Eliot himself-—that immortal, sovereign rock-—the latest generations do not know at all.

To anyone who was an undergraduate in the forties or the fifties (or possibly even in the first years of the sixties), all that is inconceivable—-as if a part of the horizon had crumbled away. When, four decades ago, in a literary period that resembled eternity, T. S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seemed pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary, fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon—-or like the New Criticism, the vanished movement he once magisterially dominated.

mccullough said...


Part of Eliot's problem is that he split the U.S. to go to Britain and affect an accent like Madonna. He eventually became a British subject.

Meanwhile, the country he left behind grew into the greatest power the world has ever known after WWII. Eliot's poetry reflects the mind of Europe aesthetic. But nobody cared about the Brits after WWII. So Americans like Stevens, Frost, Williams, and Hart Crane are still read and enjoyed and puzzled over. While Eliot and Pound are in the ash heap.

jimbino said...

I'll never forget hearing him read Prufrock live in Chicago, ca. 1965, the year of his death. I still remember his tired monotone delivery.

Anonymous said...

mccullough: In a discussion with poets I once called Eliot the Michael Jackson of 20th Century poetry because Eliot had remade himself into something so different from his birth identity. No one got it.

I saw Eliot representing not so much a European aesthetic, but a cramped, elitist, academic one that had a huge following in America as well as Europe. I was also reading European surrealism and dada, and their Latin American versions, so I knew there were European poetries beyond Eliot's. I sided against Eliot and followed Williams, the Beats, Black Mountain and New York poetries.

Still, Eliot made an impression upon me and I do remember, as few people do today, his astonishing presence in 20th C. poetry. These days I go back to Eliot, mostly the Quartets, and feel at peace. He is no longer the foe I once fought and to tell the truth I miss his ambition and precision. So much poetry today is slapdash and limited. At least Eliot, as obnoxious as he could be, was aiming high.

Anonymous said...

While Eliot and Pound are in the ash heap.

No one reads Pound's Cantos anymore, but his translation of Rihaku's The River Merchant's Wife is one of the ultimate poems I know. Since it's about marriage and the topic is dying anyway, I'll put it up here.

The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse;
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden --
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fo-Sa.

reformed trucker said...

Henry said...

Virginia Woolf on Vivienne Eliot: This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.

Tonight I'll drink a toast to Valerie.

On second reading, I decided I liked Four Quartets best (on first reading I couldn't make head or tail of them).

tennvols87 said...

This page is embarrassing Hart Crane considered a better poet than Eliot no most certainly not. Please libertarians stick to weed and porn and leave art to people who appreciate the timeless values. If you want to know a poet who truly has seen his reputation diminish its Stevens no one reads Stevens anymore. Eliot is still the colossus of 20th century poetry and likely the most influential critic as well. Really I'm a Bible Belt conservative who has little patience for the cosmopolitan set but what was Eliot supposed to do he left an America that truly worshipped money at the time and had little use for poetry. All the other names mentioned owed whatever fame they received to the fact that Eliot resuscitated poetry single handedly in the Anglosphere. 15000 people can out to see him read an essay in Wisconsin for goodness sakes.

Caedmon said...

A story T. S. Eliot liked to tell. One night he was in a cab and the driver recognised him. The driver said "I've an eye for a famous face. The other night I picked up Bertrand Russell, the philosopher. So I said to him 'So Lord Russell, what's it all about then?' And do you know, he couldn't tell me."

Henry said...

If only Wallace Stevens' works could be made into a boffo Bway musical, his heirs could have the prosperity that they deserve.

Patterson: The Musical.

Anonymous said...

David Hockney did a series of etchings based Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar" -- the poem which first attracted me to Stevens.

Stevens' influence lives on primarily, I would say, through the work of John Ashbery, the most celebrated American poet of our time.

The plain, unpleasant fact is that not much poetry is being read today period. Far more poetry is being written than is being read.

Anonymous said...

tennvols87: I would agree with you that Hart Crane is not considered a better poet than Eliot, but not much else.

I take Ozick's word that Eliot is not taught any more in college beyond Prufrock. I would say that's a shame too, but that's the reality of it.

A few years ago I talked to a college instructor and she said they don't teach Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner much anymore either.

But never fear, there is plenty of time for Toni Morrison.